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Joining a martial arts school shouldnít be like purchasing a used car but unfortunately it can be very similar. Many martial arts instructors just hang up a sign and profess to have credentials such as professor, doctor, and ranks in various styles and forms of martial arts. It is a buyer beware situation where you don't always know what you are getting until it is too late. Many martial arts schools and teachers donít register with government agencies or answer to credentialing institutions. Although the instructors are businessmen and teachers they sometimes donít get a business license nor do they obtain credentials from a state teacher regulatory agency. In many places they are not required to do so. There isnít really any strong consumer group acting as a watchdog over the schools to ensure the quality of instruction. Therefore, almost anyone can acquire a business license, purchase a black belt, rent studio space and claim to be a professor of a particular style of martial arts.

So how can one make a knowledgeable choice when it comes to martial arts instruction? Fortunately, there are some safe guards that national organizations governing martial arts have implemented in the past few years. These safe guards have been implemented to assure quality instruction/ coaching, protect/insure students from injury, and prevent abuse. There are also certain criteria that make some martial arts studios more appealing-and legitimate-than others. Many first-timers have a difficult time seeing past the uniforms, the hoopla surrounding the particular martial art, the price tag or the convenience of location when choosing a martial arts school. Although important these should not be the only determining factors when deciding on a school. It is extremely important to visit as many schools as possible. At each school the prospective student should check on the instructors credentials, the provision of insurance to the students, the schoolís affiliation to an accredited national or international organization, their business license (if required) and the facilities. Evaluate what each school has to offer and the credibility of the schoolís credentials. You can check on some of this by visiting the web sites of nationally certified organizations such as the United States Judo Association, the United States Judo Federation, USA Judo Inc., USA Taekwondo, Inc. and other national sanctioning bodies. You can also check the schoolís website. However, remember itís just as easy to put up a bogus website as it is to hang out a shingle on a storefront. The following are factors that should all be considered before you make a formal commitment to the school.

TRAVEL: Although travel is an important consideration it should not be the only consideration. The school should be within your acceptable travel distance and your preferred style (if you have one). However, it is better to travel farther to a highly accredited school than to travel a short distance to a school with questionable credentials. Identify the schools within an acceptable distance and make an appointment to visit both beginning and advanced classes. Check to see if the school offers a free introductory class. During your visit pay close attention to physical condition of the school, the instruction methods and any posted credentials.

INSTRUCTORíS CREDENTIALS AND QUALITY OF INSTRUCTION: Some of the safe guards applied to instructors and coaches may be checked at this stage. Instruction that is offered in conjunction with universities, junior colleges, high schools and city/county park departments has some built in safe guards. The instructors almost always are required to pass background checks and possess state certified teaching credentials. You can be fairly certain of excellent instruction and coaching if you are considering competition. The instructors at secondary and higher education levels have to possess nationally recognized credentials before calling themselves ďprofessor? or ďdoctor? Due to the rigors of the instructor certification there arenít many of these affiliated schools or clubs. In addition, the styles are limited and usually the school administration is overly concerned about injuries. If youíre close to one of these schools take the class and join the club.

Most martial artists donít have a university, junior college or high school providing classes near them. Sometimes the time of university classes or club workouts donít fit into work schedules. Therefore, the prospective martial artist must make an evaluation of the instructorís credentials and quality of instruction. Schools and instructors affiliated with several national organizations must now pass background checks and have instructor/coaching credentials. The school and the instructors should be certified by the national organization. Ask the instructor if the school and the instructors are certified by a national accrediting organization. Inquire as to the name of the organization and check it out on the internet. Make sure the school and the instructors are on the credentials list. Also, inquire as to whether or not a background check for instructors is required by accrediting organization. There have been many cases of sexual abuse and gangster-run martial art schools in the past few years. Check out the school and instructors thoroughly.

Next, if the school is headed by a well-known martial arts master find out how active he or she will be in the instruction of classes. Some prospective students believe they will receive their instruction from this individual. This is not usually the case. Usually classes, especially beginning classes, will be taught by an assistant or high-ranking students at the school. If the school meets the accrediting criteria mention above these individuals are fully qualified to teach. A prospective student should determine ahead of time who will be doing their instruction, and how available the master instructor will be for special classes and consultation

INSURANCE: Fully accredited schools and instructors have medical insurance coverage usually provided through their national organization. This is a further safeguard to the student. The insurance companies are the driving force behind the instructor certification and re-certification classes. Ask the school if you will be covered by accident and medical insurance when you join their school and their national organization. The insurance should apply both during instruction and when you participate in sanctioned events or tournaments. If the school cannot meet these insurance, school certification and instructor certification requirements it is recommend you look further for a different school and/or a different form of martial art.

ATTITUDE: Once youíre past the certification and insurance issues you can evaluate the suitability of the martial arts instruction and training regimen for your particular needs. Observe the attitude of both the instructor and the students during class instruction or training. These can serve as an accurate indicator of school spirit. Instructors demanding respect but treating their students with little respect are usually on an ego trip. This happens even with highly accredited and accomplished instructors. It may not be the attitude for you. Ideally, students and instructors should LEAVE THEIR EGO AT THE DOOR. Check on the studentís attentiveness and activity when working out on their own. Any good school must instill a positive spirit in the students. Students chatting or playing around when theyíre on their own is indicative of a poor spirit. There are times for such activities after class. Students should diligently continue with their drills in the instructor's absence.

Another part of attitude is respect for the roots of the martial art you are studying. Some schools, especially fighting schools, donít pay much attention to the founders of their art. Many times these schools are very good but because of ethnic or cultural background donít care to pay respect to the foundations of the art. If you are interested in maintaining a respectful attitude towards the foundations of the art these schools may not be for you.

EXERCISE WARM UP AND COOL-DOWN: Proper warm up is essential to a physical workout. In martial arts stretching is especially important. The stretching exercises should be accompanied by conditioning exercises. A good warm up serves to prevent injuries to muscles and ligaments. A cool down with some relaxation exercises is important after a vigorous training session. Check out the a schoolís exercise sessions. If the prospective student is a child you may also want to make sure the instructors have exercises specifically for children.

EQUIPMENT AND FACILITIES: The equipment and amenities at martial arts schools vary depending on the martial art and even the style. Some facilities, especially those affiliated with training camps, colleges and universities, are large and modern. These entities may provide weight-training equipment, exercise equipment, whirlpools, showers and lockers. Others schools and clubs offer only mats, work out areas and toilets. Depending on the martial art what is most important and necessary for your training may vary. All schools should be approved by the local authorities for use as a place of public assembly. They should meet fire and safety requirements and offer basic comforts, adequate equipment and learning essentials. The Permit for Occupancy should be conspicuously posted somewhere in the facility. Also determine if the facility has air conditioning and heating.

STYLES: Some martial arts donít focus much on a particular style. These are the arts that are governed by international rules of competition. Depending on the national origins of the art, the instruction may focus more on mat work or standing techniques. Starting with one type of martial art and learning its essentials is a good idea before trying another style. However in the long run most competent martial artists like to be exposed to a variety of styles. This allows one to learn different ways of doing things and choosing the best one for their own particular attributes. The advent of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is indicative of this philosophy. In fact there are schools that offer many types and styles of training. Be wary if your instructor is strongly opposed to you learning additional styles and / or type of martial arts. You must decide which methods you prefer.

CLASS SIZE AND SCHEDULE: Ask instructors about the size and composition of classes before signing up at a particular school. Normally, adults should not be in the same class with children. Some schools only offer large training groups. Small classes may be offered at particular times. Private lessons are offered by some schools. The benefits of a smaller class or group should not be overlooked. In a smaller class, you will likely receive more individual attention from the instructor.

You should also check the schedule as to what time of day the classes are offered. With adequate warm up and cool down classes should 1.5 to 2.0 hours long.

AGE GROUPS: Classes should be separated by age and/or belt level. Adult students and/ or late teen age students should not normally train with children unless there are expansive training areas. There are safety risks when large adults are training in the same area as children. Also, adults may not be able to perform techniques as well as younger martial artists. This can hinder their attitude and inhibit participation.

RANK ACHIEVEMENT: Awarding rank in the martial arts is one of the most controversial and argued topics regardless of the style or type of martial art. In fact, the rank structure differs from martial art to martial art, from style to style and even school to school. There are instructors that claim rank is given too easily. In other cases instructors may withhold rank in order to string out contracts or to use senior martial artists as ďfree?instructors. Some martial arts instructors are in business simply to get your money and could care less about your progress in the art they teach. Virtually all reputable national martial arts organizations (See Instructor Credentials) have written requirements for mastery of techniques and service length required for various ranks. The more combative martial arts have competition requirements to gain promotion. You should ask the instructor about the belt ranking system in his or her school or national organization. If he/she says you need to be proficient in a certain number of basic movements, forms, sparring, self-defense techniques and months/years of service to gain promotion, and he/she provides you with a written copy of the requirements, you are likely dealing with an honest teacher. Remember you are probably paying for this instruction and enrollment in the school. There is a contract between you and the instructor and/or school. This may be an implied, written or unwritten contract. Although far fetched, if you complete all the requirements and the school, instructor and/or national organization fail to award you a rank based on the written requirements, you could sue to have the rank awarded. There have been many cases in education where this type of litigation was successful in the award of advanced college degrees. The same laws apply to martial arts degrees.

The other extreme is when the instructor tells you that you will receive a new belt every two months. A word of caution is warranted in this case. You should never move up in rank until you have met the requirements as set forth by the school or national organization. Sometimes an instructor pushes students to move up in rank merely to receive a belt-testing fee.

SIZE OF THE SCHOOL: The quality of instruction you will receive at a martial arts school is not necessarily related to its size. Schools come in all sizes. Some are small operations run by a single instructor. Others are part of a large chain. Excellent instruction can be received at any size school. Just be sure that the school and the instructors meet the accrediting and insurance requirements mentioned previously. Large schools may have better equipment and a nicer facility. Smaller schools offer students more personal attention.

COST OF INSTRUCTION: Martial arts schools donít normally advertise their price for instruction. Prices may be determined on a monthly basis, by the lesson or by how often you train each week. Some schools have family packages. After determining you are dealing with a reputable school or schools check out pricing. You will get an idea for the going price of good instruction. You should also check on the cost for promotion testing, user fees for equipment, the costs of the uniforms and other equipment. Find out if the equipment must be purchased through the school and how much it will cost. Compare with the going prices on the street.

There are many other minor details to consider such as cleanliness, competition record of the school, ownership of the facility, other credentials of the instructor (referee, board member, etc.). You should not be treated like an annoyance when trying to find out about the school. If the instructor becomes defensive when you inquire as to credentials you are probably dealing with someone that has overstated or lacks the proper credentials. Most reputable, well credentialed and certified instructors are humble but glad to provide you with records of their rank certificates, medals, coach certification, referee certification, school credentials, business license and insurance certificates. However, take the time to check them out. If the instructor seems too eager to sign you up to a contract and answers with rehearsed responses be careful. Most schools donít require contracts. The same caution should apply as you would exercise in signing up with a fitness club or gym.

In summary, finding a martial arts school is a buyer beware situation. Only universities, colleges, high schools and government operated and park recreation facilities are probably completely safe. Follow the advice provided above to find a place to take martial arts lessons. Many disreputable schools feed off each other- each of a small group of schools attesting the reputation of the other school and vice versa. Make sure the school and the instructors have the proper credentials. You may end up investing thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours in martial arts classes. You may get injured in class or in a tournament. Make sure the instructors are qualified and school has insurance to cover your injuries. You want to be sure the instructor(s) is not a criminal or a sex offender. Make sure they have passed a background check. You want to be sure your rank and achievements are recognized. Get a copy of the rank requirements and make sure the school is a member of a reputable, recognized national organization. Be cautious if the instructor in some small town seems too good to be true using titles such as doctor, professor, shihan, hanshi, renshi, master, grand master, great grand master and on and on. Ask to see credentials and check them out. If they donít provide verifiable credentials he or she is probably too good to be true. Make sure you are going to get a return on your time and money. Follow the afore stated guidance and you are sure to find a reputable school, credentialed instructor in a martial art that is just right for your needs.

AFJ Instructor Greg Carmichael, Vice President, Nevada Judo Inc.

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